I must admit that for years I somewhat ignored Mozart’s chamber music, or actually quite a bit of Mozart’s other works as well (more to come in future posts). Mozart really was for me my god in terms of operatic works, the entire DaPonte suite will always be my favourite operas ever, and I increasingly discover other masterpieces like Idomeneo or La Clemenza di Tito. On string quartets, I simply thought that nothing can beat Beethoven and Haydn, that I’d been listening to for years. I was wrong, obviously.
A young French string quartet, the Quatuor Van Kuijk, named after first violin Nicolas Van Kuijk, joined by Sylvain Favre-Bulle, Emmanuel François and Anthony Kondo, convinced me otherwise. It is actually several Chocs by French Classica magazine that flagged them to me.
A particular new favourite turned out to Mozart’s latest quartet, KV465, also known as “Dissonance“.
But let’s start with KV428, another gem of a string quartet, very clearly inspired by (and even dedicated to) Joseph Haydn’s quartets op. 33, there is so much to discover. It is clearly showing Mozart’s total mastery of making melodies sing. But there’s so much more to it, with a lot of underlying complexity of the different voices interacting like a true dialogue. Some smarter people than me even said it reminds them of Brahms, meaning that Mozart here was potentially 100 years ahead of his time.
You get a Divertimento (KV136) as a nice filler, truly enjoyable in the very meaning of the word (divertire meaning “to amuse”).
The real highlight of this album is KV465, a nearly 30 min long masterpiece, that starts with the dissonances that must have totally shocked the audience at the time, and still puzzles today’s audiences when you hear it for the first time. The “seeking” nearly 2 minutes long intro resolves into one of Mozart’s true masterpieces. This was composed alongside some of my all time favourites of Mozart, like his piano concertos KV466 and 467 (nos. 20 & 21 respectively), and you can hear the same mastery of both melody and structure here.
Not sure why I ignored these pieces for so long, I really recommend you check them out.
Watch this space, I’ll be shortly writing about another outstanding recording of KV465.
I haven’t written about the Mozart piano concertos that much yet on this blog. Not sure why. I really like them. Maybe it is because they were just always there, I’ve been listening to them for my entire life. But then, there are many (and many of which if you want to be nasty sound somewhat similar). And while truly enjoyable, one could argue the true masterpieces from Mozart are to be found elsewhere (take the DaPonte operas for example).
That said, I always had a particular fondness for numbers 20 and 21. The andante of no. 21 is even featured on my very own wedding video (I added a personal soundtrack to some of the pieces in the edit).
A quick reminder of my mentions of the Mozart piano concertos on this blog: You’ll find a beautiful recording with the amazing combo of Martha Argerich and Claudio Abbado recommended as part of My Must Have Mozart Albums, which features no. 20, but not no. 21. In the same blog post I also mention the historically informed recordings of Bezuidenout (which I like) and Brautigam (which I’m starting to have some doubts on), as well as the classic Perahia box.
And that’s basically it.
So, when in 2020 a new Mozart album was released that got a Gramophone Editors Choice, a nomination for the Gramophone awards album of the year, as well as a Choc by the French magazine Classica, that I usually really trust, I just had to buy it.
Mozart: Piano Concertos vol. 4 – Jean-Efflam Bavouzet – Gabor Takacs-Nagy – Manchester Camerata (Chandos 2019)
So, what is it like? Well this is going to be a somewhat weird review.
In many ways, it is perfect. It is extremely well played from both orchestra and soloist, and Bavouzet puts a lot of creativity into the solo part, from variations, improvisations and ornaments in many places to the occasional liberty on tempi, and overall, I really wouldn’t know what to criticize.
So what’s wrong? Well, maybe it is the modern instruments and I’ve recently enjoyed the historically informed practice so much, or maybe it is just a bit TOO perfect, and I need the occasional imperfection. Honestly, I don’t know.
You should probably just ignore my opinion here and check it out yourself (please let me know what you think in the comments); as mentioned, both Gramophone and Classica were extremely impressed.
My rating: 4 stars (I may come back on this rating later once I’ve figured out if I’m just making a mistake here).
Sorry for the Jazz fans subscribing to my blog, I know I’ve been pretty heavy on classical articles and not a lot of Jazz. I simply haven’t found too many good new albums, reviewing albums I don’t really like is much less fun, and I prefer writing about new releases, so my occasional reviewing of older albums also didn’t progress a lot. I hereby promise that I’ll try to restore the old balance of 50/50 between Jazz and Classical. So please subscribe if you haven’t done so yet.
I used to hate “best of” or “highlights” albums, especially for Opera when I was younger. I thought the composer had taken the time to do the full opera, we should be appreciating the work in its entirety.
I’ve since evolved and really see the benefit of somebody else curating the music, especially when we’re talking about lesser known works, like in the album that I’m about to write about.
Furthermore, conductor Raphaël Pichon doesn’t do “best-of’s”, he does “concept” albums, that follow a story combining the different tracks, be it Stravaganza, Birth of The Opera At the Medici Court, or Enfers (Hells).
So I was very happy to see that in this new album that was released yesterday, that Devielhe is again featured.
Libertà – Mozart and the Opera – Raphaël Pichon – Pygmalion (Harmonia Mundi 2019)
On this album, Devielhe isn’t the only star, we’re actually getting several other great singers, from Siobhan Stagg via Linard Vrielink to Nahuel di Pierro.
I’m not going to comment too much about the concept, which the booklet nicely explains on several pages, including an interview with Pichon.
Let’s summarise what you’re buying: You’re getting 1h44 of mainly Mozart opera extracts. We’re mostly talking about his less known operas, like Lo Sposo Deluso, L’Oca del Cairo, or Der Schauspieldirektor.
What does that mean? Actually, Pichon did a fantastic job selecting gems among these lesser known works that definitely are worth discovering.
Pichon and his ensemble Pygmalion deliver some Mozart playing as it should be in the 21st century: Inspired, energetic, but dedicate where needed, clearly historically informed, but not overly “baroque”. And as mentioned, you get really good singers.
This album already is one of my favourite new releases of this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up featured on my Best of 2019 list at the end of the year.
An absolute delight, worth having for any Mozart opera fan, especially in times where new opera productions are too rare.
My first encounter with this young French quartet was even before that, with their excellent recordings of quartets by Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn.
They really are among the best string quartets out there in 2017, and this is not for a lack of competition.
So I was very pleased when I saw that they’d be coming to Zurich on a day where I’d be close by, yesterday, June 11, 2017
A quick word about the Tonhalle Zürich. I’m actually not such a great fan of that venue (Luzern’s modern KKL is much nicer for my taste), but that said, both the big and small concert hall are have their end of 19th century luxury baroque style, and the 1930s incorporation of the old concert halls into the Zurich congress center is an interesting contrast of style.
Between the two halls, I quite prefer the smaller one use for chamber music. I’ve had a number of fantastic concerts in here, including the great Quatuor Mosaiques with Haydn.
As a side note, the Tonhalle and the Kongresshaus will be renovated soon, and Zurich is currently preparing the Maag Music Hall in Zurich’s industrial “Kreis 5”, far away from the fancy shores of Lake Zurich, where the Tonhalle is a direct neighbor to the posh Hotel Baur Au Lac, to a completely different environment.
Quatuor Ebène at Tonhalle Zürich, June 11, 2017
But back to the good old Tonhalle.
Quatuor Ebène, dressed in black, as the name (ebony) implies, started with Mozart.
But not with your Kleine Nachtmusik “Happy Mozart”, but with a romantic Sturm and Drang Mozart, the Mozart of Don Giovanni, sharing the same key, d-minor, somehow transporting Mozart directly into the 19th century. There is a lot of chiaroscuro, changing from shadows to the light in this work.
They have recorded this on their 2011 Mozart album, but this live interpretation went beyond what they recorded, there was an enormous passion in the room.
The move to Beethoven felt like a logical next step, with a very intimate connection to the Mozart.
They started with the latest of the “middle quartets”, op. 95, also known as Quartetto Serioso. Unlike some other nicknames like e.g. Moonshine, it appears that this name is genuinely by Beethoven.
It is not the most accessible of the middle quartets, it’s “seriousness” making it one of the most drastic works he’s ever written. This work mentally belongs much more to the late quartets.
Quatuor Ebene put all their energy into this and played as if their lives depended on it. The passion was tangible in the room.
After the break we returned to get the opus magnum of the evening. Just one number later in the list of Beethoven’s string quartets, no. 12 to be precise, op. 127. This work not only has the length of a symphony (and I’m talking Beethoven symphony), but also the power. Who would have thought that only 4 strings can fill a room with so much power?
But there wasn’t only power. The more than 16 minutes long Adagio was all subtleness, which transported the audience out of this world for the moment.
After the final movement, the Swiss audience simply didn’t want to stop clapping, clearly expecting an encore.
At the end, the four musicians came back out, without their instruments this time, explaining in a very friendly way that they felt that after such a work as op. 127, which they compared to the chamber equivalent of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, there simply wasn’t any music they could play that wouldn’t be out of place.
I heard the Stravinsky’s Pulcinella suite for the first time live (and probably for the first time conciously, I have it on a Günter Wand album but never paid much attention).
And, more importantly, I was at my first live concert with a female conductor. This is a pretty sad fact given that we’re in the year 2017 and I attend classical concerts on a regular basis. But let’s look at the odds: right now there are only three female conductors I’d be able to spontaneously come up with: Simone Young in Hamburg, Marin Alsop, and closer to my heart, Emmanuelle Haïm. Can you come up with any other names? Wikipedia gives you a slightly (but really only slightly) longer lists with other names I’ve never heard of.
I actually had heard the name of Alondra de la Parra once before, on the radio. But that was all I knew about this young Mexican conductor (who was born in NYC).
So I was very curious to hear her, given that the Tonhalle Orchester had given her the opportunity of three consecutive concerts.
A little parenthesis on the Tonhalle-Orchester: The only recently appointed current conductor, Lionel Bringuier, will soon be history. I’ve only heard him once with the Tonhalle, but really wasn’t convinced, so I’m not very sad about the change.
David Zinman did great things with the orchestra previously (even though it is still a bit short of being on par with the really big guys), and so I’m very much looking forward to whoever will be replacing him. Paavo Järvi has been mentioned, and given my affection for him, I’d be applauding.
But if de la Parra get’s 3 evenings, I’m just wondering, could she also be in the mix?
Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite
Well, this one will be quite quick, as I simply don’t have any reference to judge the performance from. All I can say is I was surprised I really liked the piece. I have a very difficult relationship with Stravinsky, I hate Le Sacre, I can listen to Petrouchka about once every 5 years, preferable in the piano version.
It’s generally just not my cup of tea. But this piece warrants further study.
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 9 – Jan Lisiecki
Beyond Mrs de la Palla, Jan Lisiecki was the other motivation for me (plus being near Zurich anyhow that particular day) to go to see this concert.
He got very good reviews for his Chopin and Mozart, and so I was very curious to see this very young artist (22 years old) from Canada live. The first thing that’s a bit shocking is that he looks even younger than that. He wouldn’t be out of place in any US highschool movie.
Now, how did the two young stars play together? Well, let’s just say it was a really interesting experience. De la Parra lead the Tonhalle with a lot of energy, but overall the playing sounded a tiny bit heavy (maybe I’m also just too much used to historically informed performance these days). On top of that, Lisiecki had a rather firm grip on the Steinway.
Therefore, this well-known concert, which was written by the 21 year old Mozart, sounded a lot like Beethoven, and not even like his first two concertos, which still live the spirit of Mozart, but in parts this could have even been the 4th concerto.
And the 2nd movement got even more interesting, it sounded really much more like a Chopin concerto. Nothing wrong with all this, and it was a very pleasing experience, it is just different from what I’m recently used to hear.
Appropriately enough, Lisiecki gave us a Chopin encore, op. 48 no. 1, if my memory serves me well. This really was quite spectacular. Lisiecki gave it so much energy, especially in the second half, that I was occasionally thinking of being in the Grande Polonaise Brilliante. In any case, should you listen to this performance late at night (which the title Nocturne kind of indicates), you’d be wide awake by all the sheer brilliance. Very enjoyable.
The true highlight came after the break though.
I love the Eroica. Actually, it is a mistake that I didn’t mention it in my 25 Essential Classical Albums (a mistake I’ll soon rectify by enlarging the list to 50). But it’s been ages since I last heard it live somewhere.
I was really hoping from some Latin power (mentally I was probably thinking of de la Parra as the female equivalent of Rodrigo, the slightly crazy Mexican conductor in Amazon’s TV series Mozart in the Jungle).
But I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Boy, how positively surprised I ended up being. I spend the entire Eroica on the edge of my seat by the sheer energy she created. The poor musicians of the Tonhalle Orchester were clearly stretched to their limits, but they were following her with all the energy and passion they got. Wow!
In summary, as much as I’d like to see Paavo Järvi in Zürich, should the Tonhalle Orchester be daring and go for this amazing talent, I’d be all for it!
Dear readers, I hope many of you were able to have some days off during the holidays over the last weeks. I’d like to thank you again for your interest in my blog, and look forward to sharing more exciting music with you in 2017.
As always, I really appreciate any form of feedback. Do you like my articles? Let me know! Hate them, let me know as well! Any form of feedback is useful.
Mozart’s Violin Concertos
Let me start by saying that as much as I like Mozart, his violin concertos aren’t very high on my priority list. They are the works of a teenager, written between ages 16 and 20. That said, they are enjoyable, and at least one version of them should be in any classical music library.
But which one? In My Must-have Mozart Albums, I’ve already recommended Giuliano Carmignola’s great recording with the late Claudio Abbado and the Orchestra Mozart he founded (which unfortunately lost funding some time ago).
However, regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of Isabelle Faust (see here, or here), so when she released a recording of the complete Mozart concertos, I obviously had to check it out. Unfortunately, it took some months for reasons unknown to me for this to be available on Qobuz, my streaming provider (and I didn’t want to buy this blindly).Now Qobuz finally has it, so here comes my review.
Mozart: Violin Concertos – Isabelle Faust – Il Giardino Armonico (Harmonia Mundi 2016)
Not only you get Isabelle Faust here, as mentioned above one of my all-time favorite violinists, but you also get Giovanni Antonini with his Giardino Armonico. They have done countless excellent baroque albums in the last 30 years. More recently they moved up to the Viennese Classical period with Haydn, in their excellent Haydn2032 cycle (see my review of vol. 3 here), so Mozart is a logical next step.
So, how does it sound? Two words, transparency and energy! Antonini takes the same inspiring approach he uses to awaken Papa Haydn, and plays it with a lot of verve and swing. And even Faust, who can be a tiny bit intellectual in her approach at times, gets fully into the mood and goes with the flow, making this youthful music just highly enjoyable. I seriously wouldn’t know what to criticize on this recording. This really is on par with Carmignola, if not even slightly better.
In summary: highly recommended (all reviews I’ve seen vary between very good and outstanding, so I’m not really going against the consensus here).
My rating: 4 stars (full 5 star playing, but as mentioned above I don’t think Mozart’s violin concertos are truly essential, so one point off for repertoire).
Can a Japanese ensemble play Bach? Of course they can, and even at an astonishing level.
I’ve yet to hear a recording with Suzuki and his Bach collegium Japan that wasn’t worth checking out at least.
The only thing you can sometimes say about their recordings is that they can be a bit too polished, too perfectionist, and therefore a bit too well behaved.
Moving from Bach to Mozart, they already released a quite beautiful recording of the requiem in 2014.
The C-Minor Mass
I’ve written previously about this absolute masterpiece by Mozart, and recommended Louis Langrées version, and Herreweghe’s classic. This recommendation is still valid, however, the Japanese really throw in a new very serious competitor.
Mozart: Great Mass in c-minor / Exsultate Jubilate – Masaaki Suzuki – Bach Collegium Japan – Carolyn Sampson – Olivia Vermeulen – Makoto Sakurata – Christian Immler (BIS 2016)
What is spectacular about this album is the sheer transparency. The typical precision of the Bach Collegium really helps illuminate every little detail in the recording.
The typical outstanding recording quality by BIS obvously helps.
This really draws you into the work, and makes it sound like something new, that you’ve never heard before.
Of the two female singers, while I like Olivia Vermeulen, Carolyn Sampson is even more gorgeous. Listen to her in the Et Incarnatus Est, and it really will make you cry. Such a beauty!
The Exsultate Jubilate K165in contrast is nice, but clearly a work of a very young Mozart (he was 17 when he wrote it). You won’t regret getting it, but we’re far away from the masterpiece that is the K427.
In summary, will this kick Herrweghe off the throne? Well, not exactly, but in my opinion he gets to share the top position from now on.